Winter 2011

Benedict XVI and the Structure of the Moral Act: On the Condoms Controversy

David S. Crawford

“The body is . . . an anamnetic expression of good as form or, we could also say, of beauty, disclosing the vocation of human nature itself.”

Benedict XVI’s comments regarding the question of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in his 2010 book-length interview1 with journalist Peter Seewald generated an initial firestorm of commentary. As a general matter, the immediate response from both the secular and much of the Catholic press read the statement as signaling a “change in Church teaching.” Within the ranks of Catholic theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, however, the comments—which occupy only a brief passage of the book—raised some important questions. A year later, now that emotions have perhaps quieted, it seems like a good time to offer some brief reflections. My purpose here is a limited one: merely to lay out the larger principles involved in and driving the controversy and to offer a brief and tentative interpretation of Benedict’s comments.



Perhaps it is best to begin by recalling the text at issue. Responding to a question regarding the reaction following his earlier comments on condoms and HIV/AIDS en route to Africa, Benedict stated in pertinent part as follows:

[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

At this point, Seewald asks whether this means that “the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms,” to which the pope replies:         

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

1. Benedict XVI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).